Thursday, 7 October 2010

When in Romuva: An interview with Kaunas International Film Festival Director Ilona Jurkonyte

This week I spent a couple of days visiting the Kaunas International Film Festival, held in a Forum Cinema multiplex at the heart of Lithuania's second city. Only in its fourth year, the event is already gaining steam and able to boast some interesting guests. This year's event is playing host to the venerated Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr - who is coming to talk about his work whilst the festival celebrates his career with a retrospective. I was curious to know how the relatively small town of Kaunas, in an unfashionable corner of Europe, was able to attract such a guest - not to mention put on such an interesting and diverse programme which this year includes international festival hits: such as Thai Palm D'Or winner 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives'.

I asked the Festival's Director and founder Ilona Jurkonyte about welcoming Béla Tarr to the festival, and she was unsurprisingly enthusiastic when quoting for me a national film critic, who said: "If someone were to ask what were the two most important moments in Lithuania this year it would be the basketball bronze in Turkey and the Béla Tarr visit in Kaunas." To punctuate the significance of this declaration Ilona says to me: "you should have seen what was happening here after the basketball!" But how exactly did they pull it off? Well, strong links with organisations in the Hungarian film industry (such as the Hungarian Institute in neighbouring Estonia) have helped, but the connection goes a little deeper: "We started our festival with a Hungarian movie in 2007, and now these institutions are happy with what we've done... this is why they've helped us get such a guest as Béla Tarr."

Ilona's considerable coup in attracting such a prestigious guest is made all the more extraordinary for happening in a former Soviet country with few remaining cinema screens and little local film industry. It hasn't been an easy task establishing the annual event and she explained how it was founded as part of an ongoing local battle to save the country's oldest cinema, Kaunas' own beautiful 1930s-built Romuva, from being turned into a casino. I interviewed her the evening she had won an important victory in securing the venue's long term future - and the next day was privileged to be able to undertake a tour of the building itself (along with Splendor co-host Jon Barrenechea, pictured with Ilona inside Romuva below). It seems it is hard to talk about the KIFF without talking also about Romuva.

"We started this festival, with friends, because of cinemas. Cinemas were being closed all over Lithuania. Different countries, at different times, had this wave of closing cinemas, but in Lithuania it happened after breakthrough." "Breakthrough" is what Lithuanians call the moment they declared Independence from the Soviet Union on March 11, 1990 (becoming the first nation to do so). Until breakthrough Lithuania's cinemas had been protected by state ownership and a Russian belief in the importance of the art form as an ideological weapon. But since independence the cinemas were in decline and, according to Ilona, "nobody was taking any notice." It was almost a decade ago that Ilona and her friends "decided to take an active position in this... we started this festival to draw attention from people all over Lithuania to the oldest cinema – Romuva."

Festival directors can be tricky people to interview. I tried to pin down Tony Jones whilst visiting his festival in Cambridge last month, but the job requires so much diplomacy (and many years spent building up relationships with distributors) that they are often understandably reluctant to speak candidly on the record. Ilona is no different, and it is clear whilst talking with her that a few of the subjects of our conversation are not really for public consumption. But she is friendly, polite and passionate about the event which, this year, is three times the size of its 2009 incarnation. And she has every reason to be proud. Just a couple of years ago the situation was a lot bleaker than it is now.

Ilona explains: "There were no screens. There were no Lithuanian films on screens. Lithuanians could not see them at all because the multiplexes did not think they'd be popular. There were no film critics. We'd get, from time to time, these meaningless press releases about a Lithuanian film playing in another festival, but we wouldn't have a chance to see it here." Yet now the KIFF is closer than ever to rescuing a small independent cinema and is screening a Lithuanian feature, 'Eastern Drift' (pictured below), as well as a number of short documentaries and animations. They are also beginning to capture the attention of national press - which is no mean feat outside of the country's capital, Vilnius.

It isn't just press interest that Ilona is keen to encourage, however. She has also been targeting local government, which has been another uphill struggle - but one she appears to be winning: "The first year was hard because nobody knew what we were talking about. I had to go around the town and tell people about the need for audio visual literacy, and it was incredible because politicians knew nothing about cinema: to them it was just Hollywood blockbusters. We invited them, but they wouldn't come very often. But slowly, every year, we get more interest." It has also been difficult to gain the attention of the local community, but Ilona insists "Kaunas is not easy to start moving: but once it falls in love, it falls in love totally. We hope to be an apprectiated event because we really take pride in what we do, so we hope we infect more people!"

However, there is no danger that Ilona will compromise her vision for the sake of easy popularity: "We are not very careful about making our programme amusing and funny, and one year a journalist said “you show so many tough films, will you make your programme funnier next year?” but we've given up on catering for this! So now our slogan this year is “we don't show special effects, we create them” [poster below]. We know we have a pretty tough programme, but we say “take it or leave it”. If it's not for you, it's not for you. But more and more people are joining! Maybe people are a bit tired of this candy look and approach and some people are looking for something real... I also think many people have this demand, but they don't realise it yet!"

So what does the future hold for the KIFF? Ilona is realistic, saying that "a film festival in such a small country as Lithuania is very hard to have such big ambitions". Yet the ambitions she does have are not too modest. As well as saving, renovating and eventually reopening Romuva, Ilona has some noble socially spirited goals: "we would like to create an atmosphere of audio visual literacy in the town. We'd like to have representatives of every film, lots of good seminars and discussions." Ilona places a real emphasis on educating people about the role film can play: culturally and socially. In fact, last year's slogan was appropriately enough “sometimes you have to go into darkness to see the light.” It appears that Ilona and her hard working team are moving in the right direction. "Lithuanian national film history is not yet written" she says. I for one wouldn't rule Ilona Jurkonyte's involvement when that day finally comes.

The 4th Kaunas International Film Festival is continuing in Kaunas until the 10th of October, before moving to Vilnius from the 11th to the 17th. Béla Tarr is attending from the 8th until the 11th.

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